Flags are symbols, full of historical meaning. Just ask Emily Thornberry.
Following the despicable shootings in Charleston, South Carolina last week, there has been renewed debate over the Confederate Flag, the banner under which the secessionist Southern states fought the American Civil War. Some people claim that the flag is simply a symbol of Southern culture and ‘heritage’— that flying that flag is merely an expression of an independent, libertarian spirit. But that is disingenuous. The Confederate cause was explicitly racist, about fighting for the right to subjugate black people. Ta-Nehisi Coate catalogues the unequivocal words of those men who rallied their fellows to the ideology of white supremacy, and argues “Take Down The Confederate Flag—Now“. The recent discussion has unearthed this article by Christopher Hitches from 2008, where he excorates the former Governor of Arkansas and (at the time) Presidential Candidate Mick Huckabee for lauding those who would fly the Confederate flag. A “straightforward racist appeal” for votes, Hitchens called it.
On a more positive note, watch this wonderful TED Talk, done in the style of a radio show, by Roman Mars (my favourite podcaster). His show, 99% Invisible, is all about design, and the talk is about the importance of flag design.
Roman outlines the principles of good flag design, draws attention to some good city flags, some bad city flags, and some truly terrible city flags. He also explains why we should care.
A well-designed flag could be seen as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems: its public transit, its parks, its signage. It might seem frivolous, but it’s not. .. Often when city leaders say, “We have more important things to do than worry about a city flag,” my response is, “If you had a great city flag, you would have a banner for people to rally under to face those more important things.”
I posted this on Medium last week to almost deathly silence. I thought it would be something people might share but clearly I’ve not built up enough of a network.
One aspect of the Internet that makes me a little melancholy is the fact that so many people have to put the same phrase on their social media bios: “These are my own views and not that of my employer” or variations of that theme.
It’s sad because the Internet was supposed to be a place where people have the freedom to explore new ideas, identities and friendships. Instead, our online discourse is polluted by the anxieties and the obtuse reasoning of the corporate world.
The all-to-common “personal opinions” disclaimer reminds us how our freedom of thought and of personality is curtailed. My heart sinks whenever I read such words, because I know that the person who is writing them is on their guard, insuring themselves against some future misunderstanding or invasion of their work life into their personal space.
And yet we need such disclaimers, because on the Internet there are a remarkable number of people who are happy to conflate the views of an individual with that of the organisations they work for. Continue reading The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon
First posted yesterday on Huffington Post UK.
Today is the third anniversary of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’s arrest, and thousands of activists around the world are demanding the reversal of his conviction on charges of blasphemy and ‘setting up a liberal website’. Many gathered at Downing Street today as a letter signed by hundreds of writers and politicians was delivered to Prime Minister David Cameron.
But the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London is not amused. Last week, it issued an indignant response to the ongoing campaign for Badawi’s release.
‘…the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia wishes to state that it has no tolerance for foreign entities meddling in the Kingdom’s internal affairs,’ said the statement. ‘The Kingdom will not tolerate such outrageous, ridiculous interference in its sovereign criminal justice system.’ Continue reading No, Ambassador: It’s Not ‘Meddling’ to Call for Free Speech in Saudi Arabia
A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week. Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable. The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.
If this is a real trend then it’s appalling. As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly. Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage). Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society. Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.
I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however. Continue reading Academic self-censorship: is ‘offence culture’ really the problem?
An article by yrstrly for Independent Voices, on unintended consequences with revenge porn laws. The issue of gender blind laws (and principles) is relevant to my earlier post about apparently misandrist, racist tweeting.
Last year, when campaigners pushed for a new law to prevent ‘revenge porn’, it was clear who they were hoping to protect: women.
Introducing the campaign to parliament in June last year, Maria Miller categorised the issue as a form of violence against women. All the case studies invoked by campaigners involved women being humiliated by their ex-partners, and MPs discussed the exposure of celebrities like Rhianna and Jennifer Lawrence. The charity Women’s Aid presented examples where women were forced into posing for photographs by abusive partners, saying that “perpetrators of domestic violence use revenge porn as a tool to control, humiliate, and traumatise their victims.”
It is surprising, then, to hear that one of the first prosecutions under the new law will be the ‘tabloid personality’ Josie Cunningham. A law introduced as a way of protecting women is already being used to prosecute a woman. Continue reading Revenge porn: A law introduced to protect women is already being used to prosecute one
Crikey. I’m dismayed by the result of the general election.
First, I should note just how wrong my own perception of the election campaign turned out to be! After the leaders debates I said I expected Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister in May. That is clearly not going to happen. And earlier this week I said I perceived a decline in the influence of the mainstream media on election campaigns. After the apparent last minute shift in voters’ intentions, that appears to be incorrect.
However, my dismay comes not from the injury to my pride which results from making poor predictions. Rather, it’s the prospect of what comes next for our unions (yes, unions plural) and our rights as citizens.
First, the fact that David Cameron will attempt to govern alone with a minority government, or a slender majority, will mean that the more Euroskeptic elements to the the right of the Conservative party will be able to hold him to ransom—just as the SNP would have apparently held a Labour government hostage. The Conservatives have already promised that we will have a referendum on our membership of the European Union. We now face the prospect of leaving the EU, sundering and cauterising our cultural and economic links with the continent. This isolation will not be good for the UK.
A ‘Brexit’ will further strengthen the already jubilant Scottish National Party. Despite the slightly skewed results that our ‘first past the post’ system delivers I just do not see how another referendum on Scottish Independence can still be ‘off the table’. For goodness sake—all but three MPs in Scotland are from the SNP! If the UK leaves the EU, and with the other parties’ reduced political presence, another plebiscite on Independence would probably yield a ‘Yes’ vote. Bye bye Scotland.
Finally, the Conservatives have also promised to scrap the Human Rights Act, a pledge that lawyers think is ‘legally illiterate’. The so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’ will water down the rights that we currently enjoy. And since the Tories gutted legal aid provision and squeezed the judicial review process, it will be harder than ever for citizens to hold the government to account when it deploys discriminatory policies against us.
So by the time of the next general election in 2020, there is a very good chance that those of us living in rUK will have lost the political protections of the EU, will have lost the guarantee that out human rights will be protected, and will have lost a progressive political counter-weight to the Tories that may be found in Scotland. And the right-wing media will cheer it all.
Grim, grim grim.
On OpenDemocracy’s OurKingdom blog, Oliver Huitson draws attention to the way in which the right-wing media has shifted the focus of its attacks in recent days: from ad hominem assaults on Ed Miliband, to warning about the danger of SNP influence on a possible minority Labour administration. Continue reading Constitutional coups and the decline of media influence
Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.
During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:
… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.
To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend. I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN. Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence. There is none.
Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion. Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:
We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.
You can listen to the show on the TWR website, on SoundCloud, or via the player below.
Continue reading Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR
There’s a new app in town, called Meerkat. It allows you to stream live video direct from your mobile phone or tablet, with the link appearing in your Twitter stream.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to Barack Obama, writes:
If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook, and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it).
(He is of course talking about US politics). I wonder whether that’s true though: I fancy there may be a premium on asynchronicity—sending messages to people to read when they have time, rather than in the moment. How much value is there in This Is Happening Literally Right Now over the Twitter news model of This Just Happened? Meerkat does not seem to have any catch-up functionality—if you click on a link to a stream that has ended, there’s no way to view it back. Other services like Ustream and Google Hangouts do offer that functionality and I bet the Meerkat devs are beavering away (or whatever it is a meerkat does) to get this feature into the app. Continue reading Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?